Movie still from “The Lorax” by Universal/Illumination Entertainment
By Jennifer Epps
The new animated feature film The Lorax is both a fable, with a young ingenue hero on a quest to win a princess and save civilization, and an animated comedy full of slapstick and throwaway one-liners. In other words, it fits right into the mass-market animation mold. But it is also an impressively gutsy political satire about a world where corporate rights and unchecked progress — “biggering and biggering”, in Dr. Seuss parlance — have overwhelmed all other values. The movie’s call to action is clear and cogent as well as entertaining, and I think Dr. Seuss, the author of the environmentalist children’s book on which it is based, would be pleased.
Like the narcotized sheeple in Fahrenheit 451, the denizens of Thneedville think they’re happy. Civic government has vanished and the place is run by a business tycoon, but no-one notices because they’re too distracted by their shiny new toys. The citizens are sealed in an artificial world, taking so much delight in their gelatinous blobs of food, their inflatable trees, and their animatronic cats (no litter box smell, I’m sure) that they’ve forgotten things were ever any different — and long ago stopped thinking about the environment at all. Mr. O’Hare, the head of a bottled-air company, is intent on keeping it that way, and so encloses the city with cheery, Truman Show-like backdrops to keep the people from seeing the desolated landscape outside their gates. It takes Ted, a boy on a mission to find some real greenery for the crush-worthy girl next door, to challenge O’Hare’s hegemony.
Now, some of you may be thinking that doesn’t sound much like The Lorax that you remember. The March edition of Wired magazine went so far as to create their own rhyming Lorax comic strip — before seeing the film, apparently — and bemoan the addition of a love interest to (in the words of Wired) “leaven all the hectoring about the evils of industrialization”. But if a romantic subplot is in and of itself a sell-out, then Ken Loach is a Hollywood hack. (British filmmaker Ken Loach’s leftist dramas generally have a love story in the midst of their urgent political statements about serious topics like homelessness, alcoholism, family violence, construction workers’ rights, Tony Blair’s railway privatization, the L.A. janitors’ strike, contractors in Iraq, and not only the Irish but also the Spanish and the Nicaraguan Civil Wars.) Yes, it’s true, none of the storyline about Ted, O’Hare Air, and Thneedville society is in Seuss’ 1971 original. You know why? It’s a picture book. It’s only a few dozen pages long; a mere 300 or so lines of verse. I’ve loved The Lorax almost my entire life, but the film has 86 minutes to fill. Even the half-hour animated TV special of 1972 had to stall for time.
And the new feature only deviates by adding — Seuss’ original plot is still intact. The Lorax (Danny DeVito) is still a mythical woodland creature, he still appears to the Once-ler (Ed Helms), an entrepreneur who cuts down Truffula trees to manufacture Thneeds (an inexplicable product that everyone thinks they need). The Lorax still goes into exile when the forest is denuded. The Once-ler still feels absolute horror when he realizes what he has done.
But adapters Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul — fresh from their successes on the 2010 animated feature Despicable Me and the 2008 adaptation of Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who, had several challenges. For one thing, the picture book is all one flashback: the old Once-ler, a hermit filled with regret, tells an anonymous boy his tale of woe in the hopes that the boy will change things. Additionally, the book is one long debate on sustainability between The Lorax and the Once-ler. And it’s a cautionary tale — the Lorax wins the debate in abstentia — which opens and closes on a bleak dystopian landscape.
Though some moviegoers like to think adhering scrupulously to source material ought to solve all problems, a screenwriter’s job is not so easy, and Daurio and Paul have handled the adaptation issues cleverly and strategically. They assumed that beginning and ending the film in Armageddon wasn’t really appropriate for family audiences (it’s different with a storybook; the experience is not as immersive), so they imagined what happened after the boy heard the Once-ler’s tale. Instead of an anonymous boy, they created a very specific boy, Ted (voiced by Zac Efron), and gave him an intense motive for listening to the long story — a teenage crush on his nature-loving neighbor Audrey, voiced by Taylor Swift. (Incidentally, Dr. Seuss’ real name was Theodor Seuss Geisel — aka Ted Geisel — while his widow is Audrey Geisel, and the filmmakers have honored their long romance not only with these character names but by consulting the fit 90-year old woman throughout the creative process.)
The writers also balanced the Once-ler’s flashback with a rich present-tense universe, coloring in the contemporary world of the city of Thneedville and Ted’s life with his family (including an unstoppable raging granny who may also be a tribute to Seuss’ widow, played by Betty White). The Once-ler’s tale stretches out over several visits, requiring Ted to combat a variety of obstacles to discover how it ends — the worst of these obstacles being interference from the real villain of the piece, the mogul O’Hare (voiced by Rob Riggle). By completing Seuss’s original story at the end of Act 2, Daurio and Paul move the urgency to heal the planet from the theoretical to the practical, with an Act 3 high-speed chase and a tug-of-war over the last remaining Truffula seed. Though this itself may fit the Hollywood formula, the structure of the project as a whole surely did not; the adapters had to make the audience identify first with Ted in the present tense, then with the Once-ler in a big chunk of past tense, then with Ted again. There had to have been people, given all the vetting animation story structure goes through, who were worried about this. But it’s tweaked in the right places to keep the audience engaged.
I go to such lengths to point out that Paul and Daurio were justified in their adaptation decisions because purist sentiments shouldn’t cause anyone to miss out on perhaps the strongest political statement in a mainstream film since Avatar. Though less cheeky than The Simpsons, the new Lorax abounds in topical digs: not pop culture references like most animated fare, but actual opinions about the state of things. O’Hare’s bottled-air empire looks exactly like the bottled-water industry, because “people will buy anything if you put it in a plastic bottle”. His factories are themselves polluting the air, which is good news to him, since his commodity will become rarer and more sought-after. He tries to make the public forget that trees produce oxygen — because trees are his competition. Though the movie takes place in a slightly futuristic setting, this is all drawn from realities in industries we already have.
Directors Chris Renaud and Kyle Balda include plenty that should resonate for those with a quick eye: corporate “rights” are brought up; a poster inside company headquarters reads “Too Big to Fail”; the blackened hilltops outside of town look much like landscapes from mountaintop-removal coal mining. Other elements are even more overtly relevant. O’Hare has the entire community under surveillance — his goons intervene the very second that anyone starts to get ideas — and yet this movie was made before Wikileaks exposed Stratfor’s spies-for-hire. After a big action sequence, the real climax of the film takes place in the court of public opinion. To turn the townsfolk against trees, O’Hare lists their defects; for instance, they attract bees who could sting innocent tykes — “Think of the children!” the shyster pleads. This isn’t just a laugh line, it’s PR methodology in a nutshell. (And it’s effective. A guy at the back of the crowd is convinced our heroes should be stopped: “I’m afraid of bees!”) When Audrey explains to the citizenry that trees help us breathe through “photosynthesis’, O’Hare scoffs: “That’s not even a word!” Thus the corporate war on science is represented too.
The movie features a handful of musical numbers written by John Powell and Cinco Paul. In an ideal world, Universal would release the coolest and most pungent of these, “How Bad Can I Be?”, as a single and a music video. This is the kind of song that the great Broadway composer and songwriter Stephen Sondheim used to advocate for: the story doesn’t stand still while the character sings, instead the plot and the character actually develop during the song. In “How Bad Can I Be?”, the Once-ler crosses the point of no return; seized by ambition and pride as surely as Charles Foster Kane, he gains the world but loses his soul. And in this very dramatic moment, he defends himself in ways very familiar to all of us thanks to a news media saturated by corporate shills. The Once-ler asserts: “the people with the money make this ever loving world go ’round”; “How bad can I be? / I’m just building the economy”; “Everybody out there can take care of yours/ And me? I’ll take care of mine mine mine mine mine”; “How bad can I be? / A portion of proceeds goes to charity”. As the Once-ler spins out of control, he reveals that “the PR people are lying / And the lawyers are denying,” but refuses to care “if a few trees are dying.”
Directors Renaud and Balda manage to avoid preachiness, and even retain empathy for the business executive who after all just hoped to make a product that people would want. The Once-ler does in fact befriend the woodland animals early on, and for a while even tries to harvest sustainably — it is his uneducated, acquisitive Southern family who push him off of that. (They have no respect for wildlife at all unless it’s dead and wrapped around their necks, or pink and a plastic lawn flamingo.) Because he can’t stand up to his family, the Once-ler betrays the Lorax and ultimately, himself. The story in the middle of the film, then, is actually the tragedy of the Once-ler. Far from being anti-business, this is a movie about business ethics, from a very personal standpoint. It seems to appreciate entrepreneurial vision — there’s even a fleeting moment in flashback when O’Hare, as a teen in orthodontic braces and worker’s coveralls, dreams of his own empire — but the film shows that business does not operate in a vacuum. Corporate conduct can and should be evaluated like other conduct.
Does The Lorax have the wit and effervescence of Up, Ratatouille, or The Incredibles? No, but for crying out loud, not everyone is Pixar. Does it ransack the good name of Dr. Seuss? Not at all. A few years after Seuss’ death, Hollywood began making feature films from his picture books. What a difference between the first two, the out-to-make-a-buck juvenile live action comedies How the Grinch Stole Christmas and The Cat in the Hat, and the more recent computer-animated versions of Horton Hears a Who and The Lorax, both shepherded by Chris Meledandri. The former saw the surly Grinch and the impish Cat as nothing more than cash cows; the latter films, however, are true to the “bleeding-heart liberal’ sentiments of their source material and of their creator, one-time editorial cartoonist Ted Geisel — the artist whose stories include advocacy for the little guy (Horton and The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins) and cautionary tales against prejudice (The Sneetches), abuse of power (Yertle the Turtle), and even Reagan’s arms race (The Butter Battle Book).
Political cartoon by Dr. Seuss
At the same time, the new Lorax is a monster success. It has stayed at #1 two weeks in a row and has already pulled in $121 million in its first 10 days, whereas Oscar-winner Rango from last March (with more imaginative character designs and a delightfully skewed sensibility) has made $123 million domestic in total. This boffo box office matters because it implies that the public really does care about the environment — and it shows the studio executives that Samuel Goldwyn was wrong, a message does not have to be sent by Western Union. Is there an irony in celebrating the money made by a movie that’s about the harm caused by money-making myopia? Sure. But at the same time, it is just plain gratifying to see right-wing pundits who attacked the movie eating the dust on this one. It’s the revenge of the little orange man.
While progressives have complained that Universal has allowed many undeserving companies to greenwash their brands through a host of marketing tie-ins, the studio has also partnered with The Nature Conservancy in a tree-planting campaign for the Brazilian rainforest. Meanwhile Random House, which publishes the book, had already teamed with Conservation International and Dr. Seuss Enterprises to launch “The Lorax Project,” an initiative with an interactive website for children and a site for teachers to foster the next generation of conservationists.
Jennifer Epps is a peace and social justice activist in L.A. She is also a film producer, scriptwriter, stage director, and former film critic.